Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Champs Have Arrived...But For How Long?

The Penguins have been Stanley Cup champions for all of a week and already we're hearing talk about how Pittsburgh is set to be the next dynasty. That appearances in the Stanley Cup Finals will be an annual occurence and as hockey fans we should pretty much be happy that we are lucky enough to be around to watch them do it.

Well, I'm not quite ready to buy it. Pittsburgh will be a good team the next few years, no question. With Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as your backbone, you're going to win enough to make the playoffs no matter who else is on the team. But a dynasty? Multiple Cup wins? At this point that's a massive stretch.

Ever since Jordan Staal burst onto the scene with his 31-goal rookie season performance, the buzz surrounding the Penguins was how they could possibly keep their big three centers together in a salary-capped world. Even after signing a 4 year $16 million extension this past season, Staal is typically the first Pittsburgh player mentioned in trade discussion when considering the Penguins salary cap future.

And that's because the Penguins are a salary cap disaster. Heading into next year, the 2009-10 season, they'll pay $38 million (or 69% of cap space assuming a $55 million salary cap) to only seven players (or 30% of their roster). Those seven players, Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Kunitz, Gonchar, Orpik, and Fleury, form a very admirable core but it doesn't leave a lot of dollars to sign anything more than journeymen or inexperienced youngsters to fill out the roster. In fact, the Pens need to sign seven more players (four forwards, two defencemen and a goalie) to complete their roster and have less than $6 million to do it. So if Bill Guerin and/or Ruslan Fedotenko are coming back, they'll be coming back on the cheap.

The following year the situation will be even worse. Sergei Gonchar's $5.5 million contract comes off the books but Fleury goes up by $2 million a year to $5.5 a year and emerging defenceman Kris Letang will need a new deal. Even if they allow Gonchar to walk the Penguins will still be paying $35 million for only six players plus another 3-4 a year to keep Letang, which puts them right back to $38-39 million for seven players. Only that year, the 2010-11 season, the salary cap is projected to decline sharply, possibly down to $52 million or lower.

Even with two team-friendly contracts for bottom six forwards in Talbot and Kennedy, GM Ray Shero will still be forced to sign minimum-wage players to one year contracts and take chances on inexpensive journeymen. Maybe Sid and Geno will be good enough to win more Cups without any wingers, but maybe not. And that's usually where the Staal trade rumours come from, the perceived desire of the Pens to better balance the roster and perhaps provide one or both of their superstar centers with a bonafide scoring winger.

But the smartest move would actually be trading Marc-Andre Fleury, and more importantly, his sizable contract. Fleury is entering the second year of a 7 year $35 million contract and after back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals and superb efforts last week in games six and seven to win it all, his value may never be higher. I've made it known how over-valued I feel NHL goaltenders are in general (here ) and clearing out Fleury's contract would free up $4 million a year to spend on that goal-scoring winger and wouldn't break-up the solid foundation they've built up the middle.

If the Red Wings have provided the blueprint of how to win in the new NHL and they spent $2.2 million total on goaltending, does anyone really believe that the Penguins couldn't win the Cup next year with Scott Clemmensen or Antero Nittymaki in net?

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